Sunny and bright. Not a cloud in the sky. Even the haze, from distant wildfires, had dissipated during the overnight hours. You could not ask for a more perfect morning.
Saturday was bustling with activity at Colorado Horse Park. Beginning at 8:00 am, the first event of the day, a hunter class for children beginners. The day would culminate in the evening with the Grand Prix, the marquee event of show week. The Summer In The Rockies series was ending on a high note.
morning practice with Elizabeth and Lilith (CHP, Jul 17 2021)
For the daughters, and the other Grand Prix riders, the day followed the standard routine. The early morning riders’ meeting, with the blind draw for start positions. Morning workout or practice times slotted by bib number. Course walkthrough, after 4:00 pm. Anticipated event start time 7:30 pm. Additional updates would follow as needed. “Relax, stay hydrated” was the principal advisory with temperatures expected to be into the low 90s during the afternoon hours.
Except for the heat and hazy skies, the weather had been very cooperative. The only rain shower was between shows.
During the layout of the Grand Prix course, CHP received an alert an outflow boundary from a dying thunderstorm was approaching from the eastern plains. The hope was to have most of the course completed before the outflow reached CHP. With the outflow nearing, embedded with significant lightning, a delay was imposed. All events were halted. Horses returned to the barns, riders and the support crews to the indoor rings, spectators to the grandstand buildings.
a storm cometh: outflow boundary thunderstorm approaches (CHP, Jul 17 2021)
The lightning delay was soon replaced by a rain delay as torrential sheets of rain fell. When it seemed the heavy rain was ending, a new round of heavy rain began, leading to an extension of the rain delay. Two hours later, after 6:00 pm, the rain finally ended. The decision had been made, in the interim, to focus on the Grand Prix coming out of the delay. The suspended events, and the remaining Saturday events, would be carried over into the Sunday schedule.
After a one hour dry-out, the Grand Prix course was completed. The GGT surface was regroomed, sawdust added in the corners and tight turns as an absorbent and to firm the footing. At 8:15 pm, the course was approved and certified ready. The walkthrough commenced after 8:30 pm. It was unusual to see the walkthrough conducted under stadium lights. The Grand Prix riders were satisfied with the condition of the course. The footing was firm, especially in the tight corners and turns. The riders had a sense it was going to be a very long evening.
Most of the grooms walked the course with their riders, largely to determine if a cleat should be used. Griffin decided to use a short sand cleat, a cleat she used for a wet course while in The Saugerties. It was better to have a slower time with better footing in the Grand Prix round. She could remove it for the jump-off or change to another cleat.
At 9:45 pm, the Grand Prix was ready to go. Riding first on the 13 obstacle/16 effort course was Elizabeth. It was a speed course layout with very tight turns. While she thought about switching Lilith for SAM, Elizabeth decided to stay with her. Lilith’s energy level was off-the-scale strong. Elizabeth did an excellent job keeping Lilith’s energy in check.
But, it would be a while before the event started. A variety of technical issues with the timers had arisen, further delaying the start. With the technicians struggling with the timers, the first group of riders who were in warm-up were sent back to a holding area. The timer issues seemed to be multiplying. It would start, then freeze. It wouldn’t start, then start late. It would start but couldn’t accurately track time. If the timer issues could not be resolved, the event would be scrubbed and rescheduled for Sunday. It was certainly looking that would happen. The technicians decided on one last attempt at a system reset. If it didn’t reset, they would need the overnight to solve the timer issue. With fingers crossed, the timer system was reset. After the reset cycle completed, the timer system was working.
It was nearly 10:30 pm when the event was given a full-go. The first group, who were in the warm-up area, were given the all-clear to return from the holding area.
Under a steady, light rain, at almost 11:00pm, Elizabeth was cleared into the start area. Griffin did one more check on Lilith. They were good to go. Cheers were given by those who stayed, when they entered to begin their warm-up canter around the course. With 24 seconds remaining on the countdown timer, they crossed the start timers. Elizabeth had Lilith through the first four obstacles in an exceptionally fast 16.03 into the first bending line. With the short sand cleat, there was no slip in Lilith’s footing. Through the bending line and two very tight turns, into a difficult triple oxer combination. The time split over first half the course was 33.87. The more complicated portion of the course remained, four oxer combinations, two switches in direction and a pair of tight, left-right turns and another bending line.
Elizabeth stayed with her aggressive line on the course. The brush with the top rail on #9 was loud, but it stayed in place. When they cleared the 1.50 m single oxer on #13, they were out. It was a beautifully ridden round. They finished clear at 62.07. She clearly placed maximum pressure on the rest of the field. Elizabeth thought the steady, light rain had made the course faster and the footing better. “Close to perfect,” she told Griffin.
The wait was now on. Elizabeth was tracking and charting times. There were four professionals in the field, all who could very well be riding in Tokyo. Three others were in the stands watching, including their friend, Nicole, from LA. She introduced her sleeping infant daughter to Elizabeth. Nicole said it would be a several weeks before she would return to the circuit.
More than an hour later, and after midnight, it was Deborah’s turn from the #13 start position. No other rider after Elizabeth had rode clear. The second fastest time on course was a full 14 seconds behind with penalty points. Deborah hoped to reverse the trend and force a jump-off. “She’s notorious for setting a ridiculous pace, especially if she starts early in the draw. Lilith is the perfect horse to execute that kind of strategy. But, she can do a change of pace and ride very conservatively to set-up or make a jump-off. Again, Lilith is the perfect horse to execute the strategy. It depends if Elizabeth is a ta-may-toe or ta-mah-toe. If she’s neither, she has us by the scruff. Just wave off and ride another day.”
It seemed Elizabeth had the field by the scruff. Deborah decided to follow Elizabeth’s riding line, but not match her time. Move for move, she matched. Riding more conservatively, Deborah still posted the second fastest time on course at 69.72. More importantly, she forced a jump-off.
It would be another 20-30 minutes before Tara’s turn at #22. In between, three of the four professionals in the field had their turn. Each had beautiful rounds, but dropped a single rail along the way, in different parts of the course.
The rain began to fall in earnest when Tara’s turn came at 12:50 am, Sunday morning. Before she could ride, a stoppage was called to check the condition of the course with the rain falling more steadily. The footing was continuing to stay firm. With six riders remaining, it was decided to push ahead to completion. Tara was cleared to enter the start area.
Shortly after 1:00 am, Tara entered the course. She attacked the course, much in the same manner as Elizabeth. Her time splits at 16.07 and 33.98 were close. Tara knew she would have to step it up to overtake Elizabeth’s lead. They rattled the rails hard on #10 and #11, but they stayed in place. Cameron was giving his all. They crossed the finish timers clear at 62.44.
The jump-off was shaping up to be another family affair, with the three fastest times on the course. Rich, the remaining professional, and the last rider, hoped to join them in the jump-off. His time splits over the first half of the course were close to Tara’s. When the rail came down on #8, Rich waved off. He wouldn’t be joining the jump-off.
If anyone had the advantage, it was Tara. More than two hours had elapsed since Elizabeth rode; Lilith would need serious warm-up time. Comet would need warm-up time too since more than an hour had elapsed since Deborah rode. While they had been in similar situations, this was the first time on a cool, rainy night. At a disadvantage, both Elizabeth and Deborah needed to be more strategic in their approach to the jump-off. Griffin’s advice to Elizabeth and Deborah, see how the horses were after a standard warm-up. If they seem to be still cold, withdraw. It wasn’t worth to risk a muscle tear, or something more catastrophic.
Watching the warm-up, Griffin thought Lilith and Comet were ready.
When Elizabeth brought Lilith out for her warm-up canter around the jump-off course, there was a smattering of cheers and applause from those spectators who hung tough through the delays. The jump-off course was the four oxer combinations, finishing with the triple oxer combination. There was nothing fast about it. A strategic ride. Elizabeth patiently worked Lilith through the jump-off course. They finished clear at 39.58.
Next was Deborah. It seemed she was headed to similar finish when a rail went down on the last oxer combination. Deborah waved off before reaching the the triple oxer. By her reaction, her disappointment was evident. The handful of spectators applauded her effort.
With Tara remaining, Elizabeth nervously watched from the exit area. Tara, too, was patiently working Cameron through the jump-off. Ahead on the clock, Tara had the advantage. Over the triple oxer combination, rail down. Tara was in disbelief. She was so close.
In the exit area, Elizabeth embraced Tara tightly. “I’m so sorry, Tara. You did an incredible piece of riding tonight. The delays, and all …”